Mobiles make the grade

There's a heap of potential for businesses taking the mobile data route: streamlining business processes, reduced operating costs are just the beginning. But before rushing in, assessing the business case is a must.

When Terry Mosse-Robinson needed a new network when re-locating the Sydney-based head office of his expanding national courier business, Snapx, wireless was considered but the business case dictated a traditional wired Ethernet network.

“We’re not heading that way because our requirement is national and we’re not sure if Wi-Fi can deliver what we are missing [for productivity],” Mosse-Robinson said. “Obviously it delivers but we can’t see the big ticket item.”

Mosse-Robinson said hard wiring the new office was neither expensive nor difficult and the company’s current PCs are not Wi-Fi compliant. “To wire the office and put in another patch panel cost between $3000 and $4000 including labour and the telephone lines,” he said. “If wireless is cheaper then it must be a lot cheaper.”

As previously reported in Computerworld, (June 2, 2003) Snapx is no stranger to mobility as its drivers are equipped with PDAs that communicate jobs via GPRS. The company’s sales team also uses e-mail over GPRS.

“Speed isn’t an issue as it probably takes two to three seconds per communication,” Mosse-Robinson said. “And we’ve had no issues with reliability over [the past] two years. We’ll possibly look at 3G but GPRS is cost-effective.”

Now Mosse-Robinson is faced with a dilemma regarding which direction to take with his Symbol mobile devices.

“We’ve had great frustration with the devices which are no longer being manufactured so we are being forced to upgrade to a new model which is more expensive and has things we don’t need,” he said. “We will be switching to another device. We are testing the Falcon [brand] PDA which is half the price of the Symbol.”

Mosse-Robinson stressed that, if you are going to purchase a wireless device, “be careful and negotiate a long-term agreement”.

Overall, Mosse-Robinson’s message for wireless in the enterprise is that “it’s a timing issue”.

“These are developing technologies and there is a time to jump on board,” he said, adding that enterprises should goe for a wireless solution “when the technology is delivering enough ROI and can do what you want in the meantime.”

Mosse-Robinson said wireless must deliver at least 50 percent of what you want before considering it as a replacement to wired networks. Symbol Technologies’ wireless products business development manager Damian Stock, said the company is well positioned to offer enterprises mobility solutions for GPRS- or 802.11-based wireless networks.

“We have an architecture called the mobility solutions suite to centrally manage software, radio firmware, and the battery,” Stock said. “We can gather data about the device [remotely] as there shouldn’t be huge overhead with management across a LAN or WAN.

"It’s a tool needed by the enterprise, because as we get more PDAs out there we need more management on the device.”

Stock recommends that all data transmitted wirelessly be encrypted and also to consider more robust devices for field work.

“Smart phones provide access to basic data information but are not the best for scanner-based information and they are not ruggedized,” he said.

PalmOne’s CEO Todd Bradley said although Microsoft PocketPC-based mobile devices are gaining ground, Palm's business is growing again and will maintain a consumer and enterprise focus.

“I think you’ll see multiple things in the business marketplace,” Bradley told Computerworld. “There is a segment of the business market that will be very driven by a converged one-piece solution like the Trio that offers strong voice and data capabilities. However, we still see demand for wireless synchronization via Wi-Fi or Bluetooth for business applications that don’t need the always-on connectivity of GPRS.”

Bradley cited the pharmaceutical and health care industries as having applications that don’t require always-on access.

“It’s not always-on access that’s important but it’s the ability to simply gather information and provide a solution that has a good ROI and a low cost of ownership and support,” he said. “So we think you’re going to see both solutions broadly deployed over the short term.”

When asked if the rise of smart phones is likely to signal the death knell of the traditional PDA, Bradley said: “Despite the pundits, I don’t think [the standard PDA] is going away anytime soon. There will be lots of innovation around how you use the device. Anyone who’s saying that this industry is dead is not looking at all the focus we’ve put on creating relevant products.”

PalmOne’s own smart phone, the Trio, was recently certified by the three big Australian mobile carriers Telstra, Optus, and Vodafone. “The way enterprises can increase productivity from a connectivity standpoint is important,” Bradley said. “It’s inevitable that Nokia and Samsung will come into the smart phone space.”

Locally, PalmOne’s Asia Pacific vice president Paul Blinkhorn said the company is seeing “very strong” acceptance in the enterprise area. “One [example] is the Mirvac group that manages a lot of properties and the whole process of managing properties – including detecting problems and maintenance records – is now a function of recording - including photographs for the whole property management phase,” Blinkhorn said.

“The second is in the hospital environment. This started at Geelong Hospital (Victoria) and is extending out. That’s using the technology to record dosage levels and patient reaction to anaesthetics, particularly for people in the trainee environment. So this is the real-time collection and analysis and patient record-oriented.”

In addition to niche vertical applications, more mainstream office productivity tools are also being deployed by enterprises for “immediate” results, according to HP’s marketing development manager for commercial notebooks, Matt Dalton.

“Standard office collaboration and information tools are generally the first to be deployed by large enterprises,” Dalton said. “These include applications such as intranet, e-mail and instant messaging services, and it's these applications that offer the greatest immediate productivity benefits for businesses.”

Right job, right device

Selecting the right device means looking at the work it will be required to do. Dalton recommends PDAs for applications that do not require large amounts of text input, tablet PCs for applications that require note taking, and notebooks for the functionality of a desktop in a more mobile device. Moreover, Dalton does not believe the industry will converge on one type of mobile device, or that smart phones are likely to replace PDAs in the near future.

“Enhanced mobile networks are helping to increase network accessibility, allowing users to remain connected to a network while away from the office; however, users can also benefit from the latest-generation applications that include advanced synchronisation features to cope with 'offline' work,” he said. “These features allow a user to continue working when a network connection is not available and will automatically update their PC once they reconnect to the network.”

What's happening?

Regarding management of mobile devices, Dalton said current-generation management software, like Altiris, that is preloaded on some HP notebooks, can help manage mobile devices in any business.

“It performs tasks like recognising a device's connection state to help track equipment as well as provide urgent security updates that can be forced over any connection,” he said. “These management applications not only reduce the total cost of ownership to the business but also provide peace of mind to the IT manager.”

Vodafone’s future data marketing manager Declan O’Callaghan says that the “sweet spot” for enterprise mobility is Blackberry.

“Blackberry is now in 12 countries and is a near-bulletproof device for PIM (personal information manager) functionality,” O’Callaghan said. “Blackberry has come of age and will become a product of choice.”

O’Callaghan said the Blackberry - with its keyboard - is a good data input device which can be used as a phone and PDA.

“Device management is a significant challenge for organizations and my advice is to provide governance and asset registration,” he said. “Also, make sure you know how to kill the device over the air. The advantage of Blackberry is that it can be wiped and it ends up a paperweight.”

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